Shure E3C

sound-isolating earphones


About

After a good experience with a Etymotic ER22 phone headset and a set of Etymotic earplugs, I finally decided to get some Shure earphones. I had heard from a friend of mine (who owned both) that they had about the same sound as the Etymotic ER6 or ER4 earphones, but were far more durable.

I found the E3Cs for $130 at Amazon, about $50 or $60 cheaper than the retail price. So, I ordered on Friday, and they showed up on Monday.

The Fit

When I first put the earphones in, they didn't quite sound or feel right. So, I tried one of the other seven sets of eartips included in the package. They didn't feel right either. I then found a pair which felt okay, so I put them in and laid down to listen to music for a while. An hour later, I stopped, took them out, and noticed my ears didn't feel right. There had been enough suction, for enough time, that my ears felt plugged up. Nothing sounded right, and it felt kind of like I had a cold.

By the next day, my ears were feeling normal again, so I tried some other eartips. I kept getting a feeling of pressure or suction, which diminished the sound. Eventually I settled on the foam eartips, as a last resort. They fit pretty well, and didn't give me any pressure imbalance. But they seem to be made of a different type of foam than most earplugs -- some sort of cheaper, more-porous foam, and it made my ears itchy after an hour or so.

I went back to trying different eartips, and finally found a pair which works for me. I thought I had pretty big ear canals, considering I have to use the largest eartip (3-flange) on my phone headset. But I guess not, since I ended up using the smallest eartips with my E3Cs. The trick, I found, is to insert the earphones to just the right depth in my ear. If I get just the right place, the earphones neither pull no push, so there is no pressure. For me, this seems to be a fairly deep insertion. It feels like I push them along a tunnel until they hit a curve, then push them halfway around the curve to a spot they just rest naturally.

BTW, it's worth noting that you'll get almost no bass unless you have the earphones inserted properly. They must seal, or almost seal, in order to produce any bass.

The Sound

So, I figured out how to wear the new earphones. I'm glad Shure supplied so many different eartips, because I'd be a bit unhappy if I couldn't find a comfortable way to wear my new toy. But how is the sound quality?

I expected three main things from the sound: sound isolation, the ability to listen at lower volumes, and clear/crisp sound quality. The E3Cs deliver on all three counts, though they also do some things I didn't count on.

I can definitely listen to music at lower volumes with the E3Cs. Using my iAudio X5, I normally set the volume to 24 in my car, or 12-18 with regular headphones. But with the E3Cs, I find that anywhere from 2-10 is a comfortable range -- usually, about 4-8. And even at a volume of 1, the lowest volume it offers, music is still fairly clear.

I tried them in my office, at the grocery store, at a noisy coffee shop, and some other places. What I found is that all but three types of sound are blocked out. The only things I can hear while using the E3Cs are:
  • the music
  • particularly loud (or low-pitched) sounds around me
  • sound from inside my body, such as chewing, footsteps, etc -- these internal sounds actually seem quite a bit louder during E3C use
Everything else is either quiet or completely muted.

What I didn't expect is that I can also hear the sounds of tinnitus. Have you ever been in a place so quiet that you could hear a ringing or buzzing sound in your ear? Does the silence sound inexplicably loud? That's what they call tinnitus. At least half the population has at least some degree of tinnitus. It can sound rather loud, even though it's triggered (usually) by silence.

While using the E3Cs, the useful volume can be so low that the music has to compete with the ringing in my ears. It's really sort of an odd feeling. Maybe this just means my computer fans are too loud... your mileage may vary.

What I haven't mentioned so far is the actual sound quality. The E3Cs sound good. They don't sound great -- I wouldn't say it's like hearing music for the first time, or that the sound is revolutionary -- but they do sound pretty good. They sound better than any of the other audio equipment in my house, and they even let me hear a few musical details I never noticed before. I can even hear the electrical noise my stereo and cheap cables introduce into the sound... which I hope to fix soon. But the sound isn't excitingly good.

Carrying Case

The earphones came with a hard, zippered carrying case, with a spool to wrap the cords around. The case works okay with the headphones in their default configuration, though it is a bit inconvenient. It may take more than one try to wrap the cords around the spool in just the right manner to make the head and tail fit in the hollow center. After I added a much-needed shirt clip, though, the earphones no longer fit correctly into the case.

A minute of fidgeting with some needle-nosed pliers fixed that. After removing a small screw-like piece from the center of the case, the spool comes out easily. Now my case has more room and is faster/easier to put the earphones in. I just wrap them quickly around three fingers, then rest them in the case and zip it closed.

Everyday Use

Let me be up front: Don't buy the E3Cs, or any similar earphones, if you want to use them while driving, riding a bike, or performing any other activity which requires hearing. It's not safe.

The sound isolation qualities of the E3Cs make for great listening, but they also seriously limit the usefulness of the earphones. There are a lot of activities which are unsafe or at least not a good idea unless you can hear what's going on around you. I can't even hear someone knocking on my office door while using the E3Cs, and may not notice the phone ringing. This pretty much makes them useless except for times you really want to be alone.

On a different note, it would have been nice if the E3Cs came with a shirt clip. They are much more comfortable for extended use when the cable is attached to my shirt collar, because the weight of the cables is no longer on my ears. Maybe I'm a wuss, but I don't like the feeling of cables digging into my skin. So, I attached a shirt clip which connects the cables to the back of my collar. Due to the over-ear cable routing and my long hair, the only visible portion of the earphones is what goes in my ear and about an inch of cable which disappears into my hair.

Also, the E3Cs are pretty useless while eating. The chewing sounds get amplified until they are as loud as the music, and the chewing motion tends to jostle the earpieces in my ear and generate suction or pressure.

The earpieces don't seem to work well when laying on my side. I've found them useful as a sleep aid if I lay on my back (focusing on the music helps get my mind into the right state for sleep), but on my side the pillow just presses the earpiece too far into my head.

The E3Cs really shine in some situations, though. They're great for composing music, or for making airplane / bus trips more tolerable. I find shopping easier while wearing them, since they eliminate the elevator music, whining kids, and other shopping noises. I'm no good at lip-reading though, so they're problematic if anyone actually speaks to me. I think I've gained much more respect for deaf people since I got these earphones.

Summary

The E3Cs are nice, if your needs fit what they provide. However, they fail to be useful in some situations where regular headphones work.

Pros:
  • Good sound
  • Allows for significantly lower listening volume
  • Eliminates most unwanted outside sounds
  • Costs much less than "professional" earphones
  • Many different eartips are included, to fit almost anyone
  • Over-ear, behind-head design is comfortable and convenient
  • Portable
  • Carrying case is just big enough, and protects the earphones well
  • Cables are thick and sturdy; earphones also seem well-made
Cons:
  • Can eliminate too much outside sound
  • Seems to amplify sounds from inside one's self
  • Can take a while to figure out how to wear them properly
  • No shirt clip included; doesn't fit in unmodified case if a shirt clip is added
  • Case would be better without the plastic spool (but it's easy to remove)
  • Costs much more than regular headphones
  • In-ear headphones may be worse for your hearing, or better -- the reports are not conclusive
  • Included foam eartips are itchy, and most of the others are too big
Last modified: April 02, 2006 @ 1:49 MDT
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